Despite being based upon a young adult book series, I Am Number Four is an unfortunate title. What do you call the sequel? I Am Number Four 2? I Remain Number Four? Let’s not even mention the obvious pan that is begging to be covered by that title (“I Am Number Four? More like I Am Number Two!”).
Number Four, a.k.a. “John” (Alex Pettyfer), is your normal teenage alien hiding on Planet Earth and trying to live a regular life while eluding intergalactic mercenaries. Numero Quatro has relocated to the town of Paradise, Ohio with Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his alien guardian who poses as dear old dad. The two are trying to keep a low profile because Number Four is one of the last nine super-powered aliens from a dead planet. The aliens develop different special abilities as they mature and Number Four has begun to notice that his hands glow in the dark. Number Four catches the attention of Sarah (Dianna Agron), a pretty gal whose ex-boyfriend happens to be the super jealous quarterback. Number Four also befriends the school’s nerd (Callan McAuliffe) who thinks his father was taken by aliens. He’s not exactly keeping the desire low profile. Numbers 1-3 have been killed by a pack of alien mercenaries who intend to dominate Earth, and now Number Four is next.
While neither special nor afflicting, I Am Number Four is a pretty mundane, mediocre, special effects driven goof aimed primarily at young teen males. The plot lacks any trace of nuance and seems fantastical in what should even be ordinary. The Ohio town is one of those small towns that exist in the minds of west coast studio executives, where everyone gathers round for a carnival and the roads are mostly of the dirt variety. Sarah’s family is one of those ideal, chatty families that exist primarily in the minds of nostalgia. They don’t just sit around and chew their food; they are actively involved in dinner cutesy dinnertime games and cutesy embarrassing interactivity. But the movie never lets you think about these inauthentic tidbits for long before more explosions or colorful special effects rattle you. The plot follows an almost mechanical process, supplying some PG-13 skin (ladies in low rise jeans! Cleavage!) or some rudimentary chase scenes at a fairly brisk pace. The story borrows liberally from many sources, including a dash of super powered loner Spiderman stuff, angsty teen romance from Twilight, and a sprinkle of whatever is playing on TV right now as you sit reading this.
The action is never really takes off beyond the general concept of Things Exploding and People Running. Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) can string together a series of pleasing visuals but they never amount to much. The film lacks real suspense and any risible sense of excitement. The action sequences are disposable but at least Caruso makes sure that the audience can follow along. I thought with all the sci-fi elements that the film would make more interesting choices, but alas I Am Number Four relies all too easily along commonplace action tropes like it’s an accomplishment. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) gets to walk away from an explosion in slow-motion (while she wears sunglasses). Nobody in town seems to ever pick up on the mounting collateral damage of this interstellar spat. Caruso and the screenwriters are too content to just be happy playing with the special effects toolbox, emulating the favorite moments of the sci-fi action genre. And one of those tropes is that ANIMALS CAN NEVER DIE. Number 4 has a shape-shifting guardian pet that decides to take the form of a dog. Then when things get rough, this dog mutates into a hulking CGI creature, which still looks like a dog. And when he gets wounded fighting another CGI monster, it’s not enough that we get the pained dog cry but the filmmakers decide that he also has to transform back into a regular Earth dog at this point to hammer home the image of pooch in trouble. Shameless to the very end. And then, during our resolution this space dog has to come hobbling out.
Fortunately for the audience, the actors are all rather beautiful. Pettyfer (Alex Rider) isn’t much when it comes to this thing called acting, but he’s got abs you could scrub laundry with and really that’s half the part of playing a hunk from outer space. I give the guy more credit just for having to be saddled with the lame superpower of glowy hands. It’s a long wait for those glowy hands to become instruments that launch glowy fireballs. For most of their screen time, Pettyfer’s power just looks like he’s clenching two very powerfully charged indigo-glowing cell phones. Olyphant (Deadwood, Hitman) is too young for me to be covering as the dad to a 17-year-old kid. I still remember Olyphant in 1999’s Go. Maybe that’s just my hang-up. The ladies are all gorgeous are all in the flawless skin and teeth variety, you know, the ones that populate every small town. No one truly makes much of an impression but they’re easy on the eyes. It’s like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue come to life with extra explosions (and more clothes).
The only actor that stands out is Kevin Durand and he’s under pounds of makeup as the chief villain. Durand first came to serious attention as a season-long villain on TV’s Lost as Martin Keamy. He has a real distinct menace that doesn’t come across as self-satisfying or ironic. He’s got a real presence and it seems like casting directors have caught on to this former Canadian standup comedian. From there Durand has become something of a go-to guy when it comes to large intimidating men and men with some kind of mild speech impediment; his characters in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Legion, and even Robin Hood all sounded like they had their mouths stuffed with cotton. Durand always has a good time with his bad guy roles, whether they are flinty or over-the-top. I enjoy watching this man onscreen even if he’s under some fairly lackluster creature makeup that makes him look like a tattooed shark man.
The point that caught my attention, and was scantily mentioned but once without nary a rejoinder from any character, was the fact that the big bad evil aliens are killing the alien teens in order. No reason is ever attempted. There are nine super alien teens but for some reason these interstellar killers are uncontrollably anal-retentive (“We may be vicious monsters, but we respect the value of numerology”). It makes little strategic sense to stick to the doctrine of taking out your enemy one at a time and in a predetermined order that everyone knows about. It also means that presumably Number 9 will be the hardest to vanquish since they will have the longest time to master their super power. Later on, Number 4 gets an added boost from a sexy, slinky Aussie who happens to be Number 6. My first thought: “What the hell happened to Number 5?” Then I figured that Number 5 has to be locked away somewhere in a protective safe house at an unknown location. Because that affords Number 6 to do whatever the hell she wants; the evil aliens would just have to stop and say, “Look Number 6, we’d really, truly love to vaporize you right now, but first we gotta go find and kill Number 5 first. See ya later.” If that’s the case then Number’s 7-9 need to get off the bench and team up. Number 4 can’t keep this up forever, guys.
I Am Number Four is tailor-made for a young male audience that doesn’t have the urge to see something harder or edgier. It’s got superfluous jet-ski stunts, girls with flat tummies, explosions, cool space weaponry, CGI monsters, villains in long black trench coats, failed attempts at romance, a dog, and even a reference to famous Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. It’s not an incoherent cacophony of light and sound like you’d find in a Michael Bay film; director D.J. Caruso is like Bay lite with more self-discipline. I Am Number Four is fairly derivative stuff but nothing worth getting upset about. After you see derivatives of derivatives, you start forgiving the final product for lacking any discernible flavor. All of the elements come together in rather harmless fashion making a rather empty but harmless sci-fi action flick.
Nate’s Grade: C
This Rear Window for the Facebook generation starts off strong with a solid performance by Shia LeBouf, but then quickly unravels once the filmmakers think they’re desperately running out of time. The teasing mystery is set up well and elicits some interest, but then, as if afraid of lulling an audience to sleep with a story that takes its damn time, Disturbia throws everything and the kitchen sink at you in the last 20 minutes. The movie falls on its face (the metaphors are flying today) trying to make up for lost time with jump scares and lame thriller conventions. The end gets a tad absurd as well as Shia discovers his serial killer neighbor isn’t just a murderer, but he’s a home decorator on par with the creature from Jeepers Creepers. By the time Shia falls into an underground water cavern filled with corpses, I wanted to scream myself for such wasted potential to a film that seemed like a formless rip-off on the surface.